Tere Bin Laden in Mumbai on June 21.
Pakistani pop singer Ali Zafar performs at a press conference for the Indian Bollywood film
Pakistani pop singer Ali Zafar performs at a press conference for the Indian Bollywood film Tere Bin Laden in Mumbai on June 21. AFP/AFP/Getty
Indian moviegoers are talking about a low-budget Bollywood comedy that builds its laughs on a deadly subject: al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The film, called Tere Bin Laden, has been banned in Pakistan, where authorities fear it could stir terrorist reprisals, and the production company has been threatened with violence.
But Indian audiences are taking it lightly.
The film, whose title means, "Without You, Bin Laden," plays on the fear and mystery that the al-Qaida leader's name and image can evoke, and the media attention he generates.
The Hindi-language movie is set in Karachi, where an ambitious young Pakistani reporter is scrambling to realize his lifelong dream of emigrating to America. He makes it, but unfortunately he arrives in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and a few comic missteps get him deported as a potential terrorist.
The Plot Thickens
The reporter is played by Ali Zafar, a 31-year-old Pakistani pop singer who's making his first appearance as actor. Since this is a Bollywood comedy, after all, Zafar's arrest and deportation prompts a song and dance that includes a chorus line of female Homeland Security guards.
The song includes a chorus of ulloo, ulloo, ulloo, Hindi for "owl" — and slang for "dummy." It's basically the equivalent of calling our hero a dumb cluck.
Tere Bin Laden. The movie is getting good reviews in India, but it's banned in Pakistan, where the story takes place. Ali Zafar, a Pakistani pop star, plays a young reporter who discovers a man who bears a strong resemblance to Osama bin Laden, and uses him to fake a message from the al-Qaida leader.
A poster in New Delhi promotes the movie
A poster in New Delhi promotes the movie Tere Bin Laden. The movie is getting good reviews in India, but it's banned in Pakistan, where the story takes place. Ali Zafar, a Pakistani pop star, plays a young reporter who discovers a man who bears a strong resemblance to Osama bin Laden, and uses him to fake a message from the al-Qaida leader. Corey Flintoff/NPR
The reporter seems condemned to remain in Karachi, working for a venal news director at a fourth-rate TV news channel — that is, until he meets a chicken farmer who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain, long-sought terrorist leader.
The bespectacled farmer is a sweet and simple guy, so fond of his chickens that he tastes their food himself before he feeds it to them.
The reporter concocts a scheme to pass him off as the real thing for an exclusive video that can be sold for a fortune to other news channels. He hopes to use the revenue for a fake passport that will finally get him to America.
A little work from a makeup artist, and the result is, as Zafar whispers, "unbelievable."
The video is a sensation, but it ramps up the terror alert levels in the United States, and triggers a response from a bumbling but lethal collection of U.S. military and spy agencies.
Suddenly Zafar and his friends have to undo all their efforts before they're blown to smithereens by U.S. and Pakistani agents.
The movie's satire is harder on the Americans than anyone else, portraying them as arrogantly unconcerned with the damage they inflict.
Pakistani militants take a few licks, too, but mostly comic ones, as with the jihadist travel agency that specializes in trying to sneak terrorists into the United States. Its slogan is "invading America since 2002."
As for the ordinary Pakistanis portrayed in the film, they're shown reacting with disgust, anger or fear when they see a picture of the real Osama bin Laden.
Moviegoers in New Delhi said they generally liked the movie, regarding it as a light-weight "stress-buster" for the hot and muggy summer weather.
Ajit Kumar says it shouldn't be banned anywhere. "The movie's a satire on journalism, actually, so good fun," he says.
"I thought the whole thing was pretty funny," says Majid Mashal, from Afghanistan. "I can see why Pakistanis might be offended by it, but if a Pakistani actor chose to play the role, then maybe he sees it as humor, you know, as entertainment, so we should all see it as entertainment."
Whether the title terrorist will get to see it remains a question. Despite official Pakistani censorship, most movies eventually make their way there in the form of pirated copies.
If he does see it, the al-Qaida leader may object to at least one scene, in which his double delivers a message of peace to a former U.S. president that begins "Habibi [dear] George Bush."
At present, the movie's production company, Walkwater Productions, says there are no plans to distribute it in the United States, but that could change.